Conspiracy Theories

Why We Believe Simplistic Stories About (Among Other Things) Money Solving Education in the Third World


And then the Great White Father waved his magic wand made out of million-dollar bills….

Alanna Shaikh has an interesting piece up at Foreign Policy that gets at the root question of all widely believed fabrications: Why did we believe it? The case in question is Greg "Three Cups of Tea" Mortenson, but you don't need to care any more about that particular story to find some of the concepts here interesting. Excerpt:

Why, exactly, did we ever think that Mortenson's model for education, exemplified in his Central Asia Institute (CAI), was going to work? Its focus was on building schools—and that's it. Not a thought was spared for education quality, access, or sustainability. But building schools has never been the answer to improving education. If it were, then the millions of dollars poured into international education over the last half-century would have already solved Afghanistan's—and the rest of the world's—education deficit by now.

Over the last 50 years of studying international development, scholars have built a large body of research and theory on how to improve education in the developing world. None of it has recommended providing more school buildings, because according to decades of research, buildings aren't what matter. Teachers matter. Curriculum matters. Funding for education matters. Where classes actually take place? Not really. […]

[T]he big reason nobody asked the tough questions was that we fell for the story. We didn't want to ask. Sure, the book was a turgid, overwritten hagiography, but the story was magic. We all wanted to believe. […]

We wanted to believe that sometimes, international aid really is that easy, that a clueless amateur with a heart of gold can bring change in a region that has defeated the experts. […]

We let Mortenson spin us because we wanted to be spun. Development problems are hard, slow, difficult problems that take generations to solve. It's a lot more fun to believe in a good story.

Whole thing here. Previous Mortenson-blogging here and here. Link via the Twitter feed of

NEXT: Paul Krugman on How to Keep the Doctor-Patient Relationship Sacred: Less Commercialism, More Bureaucratic Oversight

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  1. “The Great Whit Father”? I’m so confused, Matt.

    1. While I’d like to claim it was a reference to Ugly Kid Joe, it in fact was a mistake. Thanks for catching it.

      1. I woke up far too early this morning to supply all your pedantic needs, Matt.

  2. Funding for education matters.

    [citation needed]

    1. You’re seriously contending that zero dollars of education spending by anybody (note that the quote doesn’t say “government funding”) produces the identical result as any value greater than zero?

      1. Actually, no. I do contend that just pouring money into education does not correlate well with improving education. Some funding for education is definitely needed and, IMO, should be provided by those with the most direct benefit from the investment.

        1. “Why We Believe Simplistic Stories About (Among Other Things) Money Solving Education in the Third World?”

          I would ask:
          Why We Believe Simplistic Stories About (Among Other Things) Money Solving Education in the 1st World?

  3. Its focus was on building schools — and that’s it. Not a thought was spared for education quality, access, or sustainability

    Haven’t read the full article, and I only have a passing familiarity with Mortensen’s work, but this seems to be a unfair characterization of what CAI (and similar programs). For one, it’s *very* concerned about access.

    (The larger point about so much foreign aid of all sorts being thrown down a black hole because it fails to address the systemic problems, and in fact, often perpetuates them, is substantially correct, however)

    1. The biggest problem with “foreign aid” is that it involves foreigners

      It involves giving money to places where the giver does not have good information on the language, politics, bureaucracy, economy, customs, religion, etc of the targeted area. In general the less information you have the less successful any project will be.

  4. Development problems are hard, slow, difficult problems that take generations to solve.

    Which is why we need a vast permanent “development infrastructure” of NGO parasites.

  5. People talk about how hard it is to teach kids in the inner city. How much harder would it be to teach kids from some tribal area of Afganistan? And even if you succeeded what the hell are you going to do with an education in the middle of Aghanistan?

    1. Apply it to something of value. Help instill the same in others. Use it as an advantage to corner a market. Take it somewhere else and succeed. Things you would typically do with an education.

    2. And even if you succeeded what the hell are you going to do with an education in the middle of Aghanistan?

      Duh. Become a warlord!

      It is an interesting point of fact that many of the historic Afghan strongmen/warlords were all engineering students. Picked that up from Ghost Wars…and another book about Afghanistan. Apparently engineering is given particularly high regard in Afghan social circles (why not? roads, wells, irrigation ditches, stable cinderblock structures are in short supply); I think Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Ahmad Shah Massoud were both engineering M.A.s, and there was a third I can’t remember offhand…

      1. It’s not just an Afghan thing, it’s a third world thing. In what little and tenuous middle class exists in the third world, the families really really push their kids to study medicine and engineering as a ticket to the upper-middle and upper classes.

        Hence, since revolutions are almost always led by those just on the high side of the middle class, doctors and engineers dominate the non-military portion of the leadership both in Al Qada and revolutionary movements worldwide. (for example, Atta was an engineer, and Osama’s #2 guy was a doctor; Osama himself had a degree in civil engineering according to some reports, but for one, he was rich, and two, that’s more because it was the family business)

        1. We should bomb the Quetta Institute of Technology and pre-empt the future generation of M.S.-holding terrorists

          Schools Into Stones, baby!!

        2. Don’t forget Papa Doc. I still have a soft spot for him. No matter how good your intentions are and how smart and knowledgeable you are, the environment can make you a meanie…unless you want to be ineffectual or dead.

  6. There are those who’ve seen Mortsenson’s schools in Afghanistan and testify to the contribution they’re making, despite the ethical problems he’s had with fabricating part of his story and not managing school funds well. Maybe this contribution is making a huge dent in ignorance yet, but better than a madrassa and better than not having access to anything but the Koran.
    Nicholas Kristoff is one such witness, though he is not dismissing the charges:


    Reason seems to have taken a purely black and white approach to this, surprising in light of their more nuanced takes on a lot of other issues. Also, it might be that Mortenson is a space cadet and that he squandered some of that cash, but it still leaves open the question of how much someone should be paid for charity work. Many members of the Left would suggest that any head of a charity should live like a monk (which would mean there would be almost no charities at all). It’s surprising to see Reason take this line as well.

    1. One thing I do know. I’m not giving money to a guy who shows up late for a speech, with one shoe.

    2. I meant “maybe this contribution is *not* making a huge dent yet”

    3. Many members of the Left would suggest that any head of a charity should live like a monk (which would mean there would be almost no charities at all).
      Would that be such a bad thing? For the most part, non-profits are a fairly safe way for people to start their own businesses without either having to pay business taxes or invest their own money. The government will give you money, through grants, to start them then allow you to take out all profits as salary. It really is a sweat racket.

      1. Indeed, I’m involved in a not-for-profit. Although I’m to be paid for my services overseeing clinical trials, I’ve gotten all of $200 over a year and a half. But I understand it’s trouble getting things like this off the ground, and I haven’t had to invest in it.

        Come to think of it, over the same period I’ve been doing some work for another not-for-profit. No income directly from that, though I have made a few $ doing ancillary work for our founder, who expects to eventually make money from some of his publications on the side.

        1. Strangely I made almost a 6 figure salary working for a non-profit.

  7. Those who are intelligent want to learn.
    Those who want to learn do.

  8. I could be convinced to donate money to build a schoolhouse for poor kids; it’s at least plausible that, lacking high-tech gizmos, most students require a physical location to congregate and learn.

    They’ll need more, such as a literate instructor and some form of valid text. Pencils and paper are nice, too.

    But i see the utility of a roof to keep snow and rain off, walls to keep out wind noise and conserve heat – esp. in the Himalayas. Lacking these, most folks will not learn algebra, classical economics, chemistry, evolutionary biology…

    So I can buy that a basic schoolhouse is a condition precedent to education (blah blah blah home schooling, autodidacts, internet, etc.).

    Maybe the fraud was claiming: “If we build nice schools, they can/will do the rest.” Seems like a old con – getting the sucker to pony up for the school makes it easier to squeeze ’em for more once it’s built. Sunk costs mentality.

  9. I recently read an interesting piece in the Pakistan Observer that explored a similar question of why education in India has succeeded while in Pakistan it has largely failed. Cultural priorities, not facilities, is hugely influential. India sought economic opportunity while Pakistan sought military parity.

    Effects also felt throughout Muslim world, Asia, Africa, and the West.

  10. Here’s another point: Reason has labeled Mortenson a total fraud, jumping on the big news business bandwagon that has long made a good living out of shocking exposes. Yet, while it’s assumed that nothing could be real about what Mortenson is doing, the word of any of Mortenson’s accusers is accepted without question. Why is it assumed, for one example, that the men who Mortenson alleged held him against his will are totally credible? Why is their word is not quetioned at all?

    1. Are you Scott Adams?

    2. Bubba,

      Maybe you should read Alanna Shaikh’s piece @ FP before accusing reason of being particularly unfair.

      I’d say Reason is being pretty fair given the details.

      As for the ‘credibility’ of the ‘accusers’ = some of the details are pretty simple: a la, the man identified as one of his ‘kidnappers’ in a photo in the book turns out to be Mansur Khan Mahsud, “the research director of a respected think tank in Islamabad”. Not an accusation by anyone per se, but a simple uncovering of untruth.

      Another ‘accuser’ would be one of Mortensons’s own colleagues – as reported by writer, Jon Krakauer (who I think can be considered a pretty respectable source).


      re: Krakauer =
      he seems to have simply asked Scott Darsney, one of Mortenson’s companions, for the truth. He got it.

      There’s also some simple, readily available details about CAI, his charitable organization, and its general mismanagement/lack of credibility. There were mostly facts in plain sight that people chose to overlook until the lies were exposed, not arguable details that could be easily misconstrued.

      Anyhoo… not saying the guy didn’t *mean well*… but we all know what road is paved with Good Intentions.

      1. “Research director of a respected think thank”
        Respected by whom?

        “Jon Krakauer”
        A great writer, but see the controversy around “Into Thin Air” ,which was claimed by some of the other people involved on the climb to have inaccuracies, or the charge by some that his book about Pat Tillman was slanted.

        I’m not saying that Mortenson comes across smelling like roses here. And for his exaggerations and mismanagement, he should be heavily criticized. That’s different though from presenting a simplistic view that he’s simply a con man, that he’s not actually doing some of this work over there.
        Are at least many schools being built over there? Is it better than what they had before, which was nothing, leaving them even further entrenched in a medievalist mindset?
        But I guess that doesn’t matter if only perfection is important.

  11. Why is their word is not quetioned at all?

    Perhaps because fanatical followers of a creed that actually kills people who would go to a school other than a madrassa (which is to say, the alleged Taliban kidnappers) are unlikely to pass up a phat ransom payment so he can build exactly those schools they hate.

  12. Money always solves the education problem! More money means better facilities for teachers to teach in, better equipment for teachers to teach with, better pay for teachers, more money for educational administration, etc.

    Oh, and the kids will benefit…somehow.

  13. This short presentation by education scientist Sugata Mitra describes what seems to me to be the next best hope for improving real education, not just in the third world, but everywhere.

  14. “Where classes actually take place…?”

    The flawed assumption here is that “education” requires “classes,” “classes” require “classrooms,” and “classrooms” require “school(house)s.”

    A large number of people (especially those for whom “education” is a livelihood) work on this flawed assumption without questioning it.

    But questioning it — even abandoning it — may be what distinguishes education in the 21st century from what passed for “education” in earlier times.

  15. Mortenson isn’t just building schools. He’s getting books and teachers in those buildings.

    Sure, it is possible to teach without a formal building dedicated solely to education.

    But teaching is somewhat harder when you’re outdoors getting rained on or snowed upon — and it’s not like the dirt poor villagers in Pakistan have big empty rec rooms not being used for other purposes. It’s not American suburbia.

    1. Basically, by building a schoolhouse, Mortenson can bring the girls into it and teach them (and the boys) a broad variety of things, whereas in a lot of those villages only the boys were getting an education, and only an education about the Koran, and oftentimes only the version of Islam taught in Taliban madrassas.

      So, yeah, Mortenson told some lies, but it still appears he’s doing some good over there, unless he’s somehow making up stories about schoolhouses being built and staffed when that never happened.

      1. Plato says telling lies for a noble cause is ok. It makes you a lovable scamp/ rogue/ grifter. Telling lies for bad causes made you a cheat/ con-artist/ propagandist.

        If you have trouble knowing which causes are approved, just ask the masses.

  16. Geez, I thought the accusations against Mortenson were limited to distortions or inaccuracies in his book. Can he have a trial before declaring him an out-and-out con-man?

    1. dude, read the executive summary of Krakauer’s mortenson story =…..n-seattle/

      it extends to misuse of finances, fraud (e.g. the ‘Pennies for Peace’ fund), general mismanagement of CAI and some serious questions about whether anything they actually built is being used as a school at all, or even how many schools they can claim to have built – see, they don’t *know*….

      so yeah, the story’s got a little more meat on the bones than james frey’s trips to the dentist.

      1. Yep, Mortenson has done a lot of damage to his own cause through being either too controlling and a space cadet to boot or for being partially corrupt (Mortenson explains his own reasons for using chartered jets is that it was much more efficient for getting to and from speaking engagements across the country, which seems plausible given his schedule. A question remains, how much of the money was Mortenson using to line his bathtub in gold and how much was he using to promote the book with the point being that this effort would raise more money for the schools?)
        But notice that at the end of the piece the author says this:

        “Mortenson has done a great deal of good, Krakauer writes, promoting the value of girls education and probably actually benefiting tens of thousands of children. But, he says:

        It is now evident, however, that Mortenson recklessly betrayed this trust, damaging his credibility beyond repair.

        The cause that Mortenson has championed is incredibly important and worthy of support. Krakauer, who admits to bitterness at being “conned” by Mortenson, says he believes the Central Asia Institute and its mission can be “salvaged” and restored to its noble purpose ? but only if it does so without Mortenson.”

      2. Not gonna. Sticking my fingers in my ears. I’ll come around.

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